12 OCTOBER 1934, Page 28

• Cobras, Mongooses and Magic

"- THE great rope-trick is a myth . . . It has never been performed, and it never will be." The basket-trick is . another clever illusion. Snake-charmers who claim to be immune from cobra bites, sword-swallowers, jugglers, fire- eaters, men who make mangoes grow out of nothing, men

• who drive skewers through their skulls or tongues, and men who extrude their eyes until they lie outside the lids, come under Colonel Elliot's vigilant eye. Of these things he writes well, but none of his writing justifies his statement that he has " not the least hesitation in stating that the mystery of the East is a myth."

The East, particularly India, remains mysterious in spite of Colonel Elliot's explanations. How do fire-walkers traverse red-hot coals ? What arts of thought-transference are taught to Tibetian initiates ? Does mass-hypnotism exist ? What scientific explanation can the author offer for the Yogic death-trance, or for the humble snake-charmer's capacity for luring snakes from their hiding places ? We need not attribute such phenomena to supernatural agency, but neither need we lose our faculty for wonder.

While conceding Colonel Elliot's main contention—that the glamour of India disposes us to be uncritical in our acceptance of phenomena which are only conjuring tricks— the reader who studies the interesting evidence here collected will still be disposed to regret that the author nowhere draws a distinction between mystery and mysticism.

The mysticism of India is not a myth, nor is it a mystery. Like all mysticism, it is an attempt to bring the mind of man into touch with transcendental Reality. The Vedic Aryans were closer than, the doctors of Darwin's day to modem conceptions of 'space, time, and matter: If Colonel Elliot is really trying (as he alleges) to "drive a nail into the coffin of mysticism," then he has failed in his endeavour. The least convincing passages in his book are those which animadvert upon the "rice-fed brain," and "loafing through life dependent on others," But when he cuts the psycho- logical cackle and comes to the cobras, he is on sure ground.

As an exceptionally successful eye-surgeon, the author had opportunities for seeing the life of India from a different angle from that of the soldier or official, although he was himself also an official. There is a closely-observed and well-written description of a fight between a mongoose and its adversary. We read also of witchcraft in Africa, and of the habits of vipers in the New Forest. It *Will be news to the reader that fights between mongooses and adders have been staged in England : "when given grass-snakes the ichneumons (mon- gooses) showed no alarm, and pounced without hesitation on the back of the reptiles' necks. It was quite a different affair when adders were supplied to them. They worked round the vipers just as I have described their doing with the cobras, and waited until they were in a favourable position; then they darted at their victims. Snake and mongoose rolled over and over, the former coiled tightly round its deadly adversary. . . . In the end the mongoose was always the winner, and finished up by eating the back of the snake's neck. . . ." Colonel Elliot thinks that the mongoose's instant recognition of the difference between British poisonous and non-poisonous snakes may be due to a sense of smell.

The author tells us much about various venoms, and draws a horrifying picture of the python, with its powerful coils and septic mouth (p. 256) which contrasts curiously with the story of the" beautiful 6 ft. 3 in. python" which the author suggested giving to- a girls' school (p. 239).

It is a pity that Colonel Elliot has not "told us what to do if (a) attacked, and (b) bitten or constricted by the -various kinds of snakes ; and what are the chances of recovery,

if any, from the bites of cobras, kraits, sea-snakes, cotton- mouthed mambas, and puff-adders ; and from the embraces of a boa. Or is this asking the inipossible ? Statistics would be certainly untrustworthy, but one would like to know whether the case of the Indian Army officer who was bitten by a cobra in his bed is a common one there was no help available, and after killing the snake he sat down to write final letters and make his will. He then got into bed, and woke in the morning none the worse for his adventure."

Beside these ophidian side-lights on India, the author's account of conjuring tricks—though admirably done—are comparatively prosaic ; but this is not to say that they are dull. The book bears the impress of a strong though not always sympathetic personality : its allusions and asides will recall the hills and plains of Hindustan to those who have lived there, and for those that have not, will serve to throw into relief some curious facts about a fascinating country and its people.